GATHERED TOGETHER in the home of a family recently confronted with homelessness are (from left) Homeless Angels Director Shelly Ochodnicky, Cloe and Quinn, Barbara with Christopher and Valentina, and Janena Kregger.
Barbara, Christopher and Valentina are excited for the apartment, new friendships and the possibility of a bright future – having faced off homelessness in 2020.
What happens when a young mother of Cuban descent with her two small children arrives in Owosso to find out the plans she made to begin a new life have all evaporated? Sadly, she finds herself without a home or any means to connect to resources since her primary language is Spanish. However, that is the exact point when Homeless Angels Director Shelly Ochodnicky stepped in to offer shelter to Barbara, Christopher and Valentina – all from Miami where speaking Spanish is not the barrier it is in Michigan. Ochodnicky took the family of three into the Homeless Angels Owosso campus and has since been working with them, connecting them to community resources, school, English language classes and more – with the help of Google translate.
The young mother, Barbara, arrived in Michigan in August to find out the housing situation she had been promised was no longer available to her. Barbara has lived in Miami since she was 15-years-old and has established residency. She is now working toward full citizenship. She came to Miami from Cuba with her father, attended high school and then worked in the restaurant business and also in retail. Her dream of coming to Michigan was to seek a “new life, a better life” for herself and her kids, including Christopher, who is now 7, and Valentina, 8 months.
The family of three soon found themselves living at the Homeless Angels Owosso campus on N. Park Street, where Ochodnicky quickly registered Christopher into first-grade at a nearby elementary school. Christopher is rapidly learning to speak English, having already spoken it somewhat prior. Barbara and Ochodnicky are both quick to share how adaptable Christopher has been.
“He is very good, process in English is perfect,” Barbara said, obviously proud of her son. In just two short months, she is already starting to speak some English, as well.
About his school, Barbara said that Christopher enjoys, “Everything. Friends. Quinn.” Christopher particularly loves his new friend, Quinn (Mowl). In fact, the two have become best friends, leading to further family friendships as Quinn’s grandmother, Janena Kregger, seeing the boys after school prior to shut down, volunteered her driving services for Christopher to-and-from school. The two families soon became close, with friendships developing between Barbara and her children and the Kregger family – including Cloe, Quinn’s mother.
“The boys are two peas in a pod,” Cloe shared, describing a couple of fun play dates.
Other friendships have been made, too. Prior to starting school, OPS Liaison Officer Mike Ash came to Homeless Angels to meet with Christopher, to help in becoming another familiar face to the boy. Inspired, Christopher is now very interested in police work. Barbara is also considering studying to become a police officer, sharing that she would love to one day be a detective.
Approximately three weeks ago, a nearby apartment became available at a Kregger-owned property, and wanting to help, the landlord offered the apartment to Barbara and her children, rent-free while she learns English.
“The biggest thing for mom,” Ochodnicky said, referencing Barbara, “has been not having a kitchen. She loves to cook and she makes all her own baby food.” So the opportunity to have an apartment with a kitchen and near to the shelter was a huge boon for everyone involved.
“It’s different in Cuba than American,” shared Barbara on baby food.
Ochodnicky said it was “very bothersome to her” that her children weren’t eating as healthy as possible, worrying about junk food and carbs. Cuban baby food is made from pureed malanga as a base, with other ingredients added in. Malanga is a tropical root vegetable, far more nutrient-rich than a potato. The malanga is first cooked in a pressure cooker, prior to being put through a blender. Chicken and other food items can be blended in, too.
Pureed black beans with garlic, onion, chili and sometimes beef is another Cuban food option Barbara uses for Valentina.
As for the move into the new apartment, the previous tenant opted to leave behind some furniture and then the First Church of Christ and the Kregger family purchased some basic household items such as a bedspread, new pots and pans, silverware, a blender and a mop to help the family in their new start.
“It’s very good. I love it,” Barbara stated about her new home, which is a studio-style unit with an area for a living space and a bedroom. The kitchen she adores is tucked into a corner.
“It looks so good,” Janena said, “the way she’s organized the apartment, and it just feels so good to give back. We have so much and we don’t realize how much we have.”
Ochodnicky has been helping Barbara to eventually locate into more permanent housing, but the wait lists for the Owosso area are up to two-years long at this time due to the housing shortage. Janena and Ochodnicky both emphasized the critical need in Owosso for an increase in reasonably priced, lower income housing, particularly in relation to single parent, one-income situations.
Ochodnicky also elaborated on complications related to Bridge card shut downs during the pandemic, along with other avenues that have been closed off to the homeless population, making connecting to resources even more difficult during an already exceedingly difficult year. As the director at Homeless Angels, a large part of her expertise is in problem solving.
Barbara expressed her gratitude to everyone who has helped her and her children.
“She’s very smart, very resourceful and she’s a go-getter. She does anything we ask,” Ochodnicky stated about Barbara. “And she really wants to work. That’s what’s been hard is thinking of how we can help her get to that point again. Plus factoring in daycare. It will be a little bit of a while to get her there.”
Barbara is excited for the kitchen at the Homeless Angels campus to open soon so she can cook for everyone at the shelter. Rumor has it she makes amazing Cuban Flan – a caramel custard dessert.